HANGMAN'S CURFEW (1941)
1941 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 2010 Minnow Press; 2014 Vintage Press.
Cover scan provided by Facsimile Dust Jackets.
"It's like this, ma'am," said the inspector, after he had asked whether Mrs. Bradley had lunched. "We've got another line on that young suicide lad."
"The lad who was murdered, you mean?" said Mrs. Bradley. She pulled off her gloves, avoiding the inspector's surprised and reproachful eye.
"And how did you get on to that?" the inspector enquired. Mrs. Bradley cackled, and observed that sometimes the right hand did not know what the left hand accomplished.
"Tell me all, child," she added.
Young Gillian, recovering from an affaire du coeur, pays a recuperative visit to family friend Beatrice Bradley. At her host's suggestion, Gillian travels to Northumberland for a walk upon the heaths and hills. Although at the start her only companion is an Ordnance map, she soon encounters a tall, solitary young man who, while the two wait out a passing rainstorm in the keep of a Border castle, tells Gillian a strange tale of poisoning attempts upon his uncle. The vexed young man wishes for some person--a detective or psychiatrist or both--to look into his uncle's plight, and Gillian looks no further than Mrs. Bradley to fill just such a role.
The story of the poisonings is indeed of interest to the psychoanalyst sleuth, but it also carries an air of familiarity. Mrs. Bradley traces the story's facts to a much earlier crime in East Bierly. Intrigued, she pays a visit to the village where the uncle (according to Gillian's story) should reside. The existence of a "dark man" named Frere and a churchgoing poltergeist add curious complications to the mystery. After firm affirmations from a novice doctor that the uncle is in no way suffering from strychnine poisoning, said uncle is declared dead and the entire housestaff disappears. Curiouser and curiouser.
When Gillian's mysterious young man is fatally stabbed at a theatre performance--and Mrs. Bradley is shot at while examining the body--events take a physical turn, with both women defending themselves against the murderous attentions of a particularly dogmatic villain. Hidden clues within the Border Ballads bring Mrs. Bradley to a northern castle and reunite her with a suitor from long ago. The elderly, but very lively, detective rallies her motley group of defenders (including Gillian, Scots housekeeper Elspat, and chauffeur George) against a forceful gang convinced that someone in the castle holds the key--either literally or figuratively--to buried treasure.
Gladys Mitchell provided Mrs. Beatrice Bradley with her most physical bouts of sleuthing during the books of the 1940s. Such vigorousness in plot and travel, in my opinion, begins with 1939's Printer's Error and carries through 1948's The Dancing Druids. Sunset over Soho (1943), My Father Sleeps (1944), The Rising of the Moon (1945), and Here Comes a Chopper (1946) are also solid examples of adventure coexisting within a detective novel. In these tales criminals are given chase, Mrs. Bradley finds herself in sudden (often quickly righted) jeopardy, and the old lady is not averse to gunplay or an accurately-thrown heavy object to hinder a foe. These elements can be found in Mitchell books before and beyond the '40s, but it is in this period that countryside action most notably supplants clue-gathering and straightforward detection (if "straightforward" can ever be used to describe Miss Mitchell's tangled plotlines!).
Given the author's career unwillingness to stay within the confines of the drawing-room like other self-respecting Golden Age detective writers, it is not surprising that adventure elements creep into, and occasionally overtake, Mitchell's mystery stories. Her characters traipse over hillside and moor, and the author's love of country is evident in the prose descriptions of such pastoral settings. Mitchell doesn't rhapsodize, but she does paint a very detailed, vibrant English picture for her readers. Here in Hangman's Curfew the Northumberland locale, dotted with Border castles and heather-filled heaths, provides a distinct, memorable backdrop to the tale. That's the good news. Curfew also contains one of Miss Mitchell's busiest, most inscrutable plotlines, complicated by the fact that the exact details of Mrs. Bradley's deductions, seemingly explained, are never really fleshed out. Motives and motivations are obscure and unrecognized. I still do not understand how the medieval Border Ballads provide identification of a particular tract of land or why the puzzlemaker decided upon such an archaic form of code or even why there is a code in the first place (a well-hidden document would not have sufficed?). Similarly, the villain expends so very much energy in stage-managing the uncle's death -- and confides in so many people while doing so -- that one must wonder whether it's worth all the work.
Such overdecorations of plot are difficult to overlook as, having set anchor in rational detective fiction, their presence tends to tip any precarious believability right out the window. It's a pity too, because Hangman's Curfew starts out very strongly, relating the interesting story of a strychnine poisoner at work in a country house. The first third of the book reminded me winningly of a Sherlock Holmes tale. It begins to bog down, however, when Mitchell brings in the Border Ballads acrostic, a device which doesn't have much of a bearing on plot and makes very little practical sense. By the time Mrs. Bradley entrenches herself at the castle and prepares for battle, the reader at best has opted to stop trying to follow the cul-de-sackish plot or at worst has given up altogether.
There's a footnote appended to an educational but ultimately trivial list of Border Ballad titles from chapter six that states, This list can be omitted by bored or lazy readers. The feeling of a similar inconsequentiality might be transferred to Hangman's Curfew itself: omission may make a pleasanter experience than a full-on siege of the castle, literarily speaking.